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Oct/Nov 2013 Reviews & Interviews

The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things
Elizabeth Gilbert.
Bloomsbury. 2013. 499 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 5011 4.

Review by Ann Skea


Buy now from Amazon! Alma Whittaker is a remarkable woman—and a remarkable creation by Elizabeth Gilbert.

But this story begins with Alma's father. Henry Whittaker despises his own father for lacking initiative. As a boy, helping his father in King George III's botanical gardens at Kew, Henry sees how royalty and gentlefolk live and he decides to better himself. He begins to steal exotic and rare plants from the gardens and sell them to collectors, and he buries the money he earns in the gardens for future use. When his father discovers what he is doing and hauls him before Sir Joseph Banks (Kew Gardens' Director), Henry, by sheer cheek, convinces Banks not to have him hanged but to employ him. So, in 1776, Henry embarks as botanical assistant to Banks's chosen botanist on Captain Cook's third voyage around the world.

The narrator of Henry's story has a wonderfully sardonic tone that mirrors Henry's view of the world. And Henry, through his own initiative, flourishes. He uses his hidden hoard, and the knowledge and botanical skills he has learned from his father and on two world voyages, to begin a business importing Cinchona bark (the source of quinine) and manufacturing medicines in the newly established colony of Philadelphia. Alma grows up on the opulent estate that Henry builds, and amongst the many exotic and native plants that Henry's skills enable him to grow there.

It says something for the power of this story that it was only towards the end of the book that I suddenly realized that the narrator's sardonic tone was missing. But Alma is an altogether more serious character, having inherited a large dose of her Dutch mother's practicality and love of order. She is none the less likeable for that, and it is when she breaks out of her carefully ordered ways that extraordinary things happen.

Alma is encouraged from a young age to think and speak for herself, and she is clever, inquisitive, and stubborn. She learns botanical skills from her father, and while quite young she begins to draw and study plants. Eventually, her fascination with mosses, and her close study of them, leads (through a young publisher with whom she falls in love) to a few publications. Over many years, Alma's continuing interest in mosses leads her to develop an almost unique theory about the evolutionary development of plants, based on their struggle for survival—almost unique, because she learns of similar theories developed by Alfred Russel Wallace (whom she meets) and by Charles Darwin (who publishes his as On the Origin of Species). Alma, although having written up her theory before either of these men, never publishes it, because it raises a question about the evolutionary value of altruism that she cannot explain. Nor, she discovers, can Wallace or Darwin. And, even today, this question is still the subject of scientific debate.

The botanical theme is an important part of this book, and some fine botanical illustrations separate each of its five parts. But other stories are developed, too. Prudence, a young orphan brought home by Henry, becomes Alma's sister, and her quite different character brings unexpected twists to the tale. The strange and enigmatic Ambrose Pike becomes Alma's husband, and her efforts to understand his puzzling mental condition take Alma, as a widow in her 50s, to Tahiti. There she learns to live a totally different life in a culture with totally different values. Slavery, the Abolitionist Movement, loyalty, the dangers, strange experiences, and beauty of long ocean voyages, colonial and island life, philosophy, religion, scholarship... all are themes in this book. The title itself is taken from the 16th century theory of Jacob Boehme, who saw all of nature as a divine code (a "signature"), containing proof of God's love. This, too, is something Alma questions, finding that scientific method cannot prove it.

Alma's interests are intellectual and challenging, but her curiosity is boundless, her experiences absorbing, and her life is never dull. She is also a woman whose sexuality is strongly developed, initially through discovering erotic books while sorting through the boxed libraries that her father buys from neighbors whose business enterprizes (unlike his) have failed.

Alma Whittaker is a woman who deserves to stand alongside all the famous heroines of English literature. Like them, she has strength, resilience, and determination. And, as the acknowledgments at the end of Elizabeth Gilbert's book reveal, her life reflects the passion and dedication that has driven "all women of science throughout history."

 

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